The potential of Enterprise 2.0 is real, but it has to be looked for in the spaces where it really can excel. One of these spaces is business-to-business interoperability.
In this View, we continue the discussion on the theme of 'integration'. As you will remember, in our last post, we described how Laurie Buczek came to the conclusion that the lack of success of Enterprise 2.0 was due to ... a lack of integration of social tools into the collaborative workflow.
As we said, a valid point. More integration will certainly facilitate adoption and in general, deliver more tangible business benefits. However, will it create something that is worth the label "2.0"?
Integration for connectedness
In some of our previous posts, we have frequently discussed some of the reasons that make that Enterprise 2.0 has not become the breakthrough success that many were hoping for. There are numerous reasons for this, but the main theme always boils down to the unavoidable reality that with E2.0, we try deriving similar advantages of discovery, creativity, innovation, change and other serendipities previously observed in the Web 2.0 world, by making use of similar tools. However, in the enterprise, we have to do this "within context".
In the enterprise, everything we do has always to be "within context", some context. There are always boundaries and rules that are imposed on us and that will inhibit the full exploitation of the potential benefits of the social tools we use.
Unfortunately, the very nature of emergence makes that, very often, the really interesting ideas or solutions that pop up will be found to be "out of context", not in line with the present corporate way of working. And as many E2.0 practitioners certainly have experienced, convincing management to adjust the context so that it will fit the new idea is rarely the fast lane to promotion.
More integration, as suggested by Buczek, will not dramatically change this. By necessity, enterprise integration always has to be 'within context'. So, integrating social tools into the collaborative workflow essentially implies giving up many of the potentially interesting, yet too exotic parts of the emergence, becoming connected, more aligned, and finally, a part of the business processes. Business as usual.
This still will allow for improvement and in certain business contexts, for substantial improvement, but it will not be transformational.
Whatever we might wish or hope for, the simple reality is that today's enterprises are no ecosystems of so-called 'free agents' that jointly create the "emerging enterprise". There are fundamental laws at play, right or wrong, that define what the enterprise really is or can be and 'social' still has little or no voice in making these laws.
Therefore, taking all of this into account, it has always surprised us how little attention has been given by the E2.0 crowd to the specific business contexts where many of these obstacles and challenges do not play or even work in favour of E2.0 adoption: business-to-business contexts.
Integration for disconnectedness
Of course, with crowdsourcing, B2B has always been somewhat part of the E2.0 discourse. However, crowdsourcing is a rather specific and narrow application domain that will not be really relevant for most businesses. However, there are many more B2B contexts where improved collaboration would greatly benefit the business outcome.
In an E2.0 context, B2B has the clear advantage that the participating companies can, to a large extent, really act as free agents and therefore, fully benefit from the opportunities that emerge from the use of the collaboration tools. There will of course always be some form of (stronger or weaker) dependency upon each other. But apart from these dependencies, each company more or less draws its own course.
In addition, in such context, integration is not the workaround to get to E2.0 adoption. Here, E2.0 collaboration tools really can provide THE integration.
In a B2B world, integration is a major issue. You find all varieties of business networks, often including very small companies, all with their own (often very limited) IT infrastructure. Real IT integration rarely is an option and telephone calls, e-mail and fax often are the only available "integration layer".
But even very large corporations with extensive IT infrastructures face similar challenges. Often, they have to deal with huge networks of much smaller suppliers, dealers and resellers, all with their own, of course, incompatible application environments. Web portals are then the traditional approach, but these are often limited to content distribution with limited capabilities for real interaction.
So, what the B2B world really needs are cloud-based collaborative solutions that support interactions that span multiple companies. The need is there, real alternatives are hardly available, the technology is largely there and the market acceptance for cloud-based solutions is increasing.
And things are starting to take off. During its recent Dreamforce conference, Salesforce.com, a well-known pioneer in cloud-based CRM solutions, announced extensions to its Chatter microblogging tool that will allow other networks, customers and partners to participate in so-called Chatter Customer Groups. Salesforce.com customers will be able to invite external parties to participate and collaborate within their own Chatter network. In addition, with the new Chatter Connect API, integration of Chatter into other application environments becomes possible.
It's an interesting sign of evolution and Saalesforce.com is of course a big name, but microblogging integration is only a very small (and also rather easy) part of the collaboration game. Still, there is likely more to come.
One new start-up that we are aware of that has taken on the challenge of addressing the broader context of B2B interoperability is bEcosystems, Inc. with its bCommunities product offering. Not accidentally, bEcosystems has its roots in the delivery of custom-tailored services to other businesses.
The product currently is in (invitation) beta. In its current form, the product is focused on project collaboration whereby individuals of different companies can work together in a secure environment, exchanging information, defining tasks, allocating resources, sending messages, etc. The environment provides for a single repository where the progress of all work can be monitored and where all related discussion threads are available. Furthermore, there is a series of industry- and service-specific process templates that facilitate project definition and follow-up for specific business contexts.
In this start-up phase, the market focus is likely on existing business relationships whereby already existing business partnerships will use it to move to a more reliable and more convenient way of interaction compared to the current 'loosely coupled' phone-email-fax interoperability.
However, the potential goes much further. As said, also in very large organisations, this type of solution can address real business needs. In addition, once such network of connected businesses becomes operational, we get an ecosystem that allows for even far greater potential.
As an example, in the E2.0 marketing, improving the ability for 'finding the right expert for the deal at hand' is a classical 'proof' for the ROI of the solution. It will add to the bottom-line.
But what about finding the right partner?
Today, most organisations are largely frozen into their existing business relationships because of the huge cost for finding reliable, cost effective and qualitative alternatives, the associated 'switching' costs and the risks involved.
But what if future generations of bCommunities style solutions provide for an environment to do just that in an economic and risk-free way?
Now, we are working in the management consulting business and all industries will be different, but our assessment is that if companies would really be able to exploit the potential of our networked economy, that they would be able to get an outcome that is twice as good at half the price. For those who are not that good at figures, that is a four times better return on investment.
That's the kind of opportunity we are talking about.
As we wrote in previous posts, Enterprise 2.0 has a great future, but we really have to start looking in the right places.
About Marc Buyens
Marc Buyens is analyst, management consultant and owner of Xpragma. He started Xpragma in 1999 after a 20+ years career in the IT sector. Today, he provides advice, training and mentoring services focusing on the intersection of technological evolution, organisational change and business strategy: a messy world of unfulfilled promises.